Love and Theft

Love and Theft

From Jack Robin to Bob Dylan

Mutual forgiveness of each vice,
Such are the gates of paradise.

—William Blake, “For the Sexes:
The Gates of Paradise”

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.

—William Shakespeare, Sonnet 130

I wanna be black. . .
—Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Acting black—a whole social world of irony, violence, negotiation and learning is contained in that phrase . . . an unstable or indeed contradictory power, linked to social and political conflicts, issues from the weak, the uncanny, the outside. Above all, the slipperiness. . .
—Eric Lott, Love and Theft

Since the spread of video shops all over America, the Warner Brothers-Al Jolson 1927 film The Jazz Singer has been easier than ever to see. It’s too bad that hardly anyone rents it. Not only is it the first-ever “talkie” movie, and probably the first-ever music video, it’s a surprising synthesis of two very different genres: the minstrel show and the bildungsroman. Most literate Americans have an idea of how important the bildungsroman has always been in our national self-scrutiny. Not many people know about the abiding importance of our minstrel tradition, with its high seriousness wrapped in clowning. The book that taught me this is Eric Lott’s Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class. I won’t talk about this rich and fascinating book directly, but it has helped me see where it is I am trying to go.

The most remarkable moment in the 1927 Jazz Singer occurs about two-thirds of the way through, when Al Jolson blacks up. “Jack Robin” is the name of the performer who goes to work on himself in this scene; but we the audience remember who and what he was “before.” We met him first as a kid, “Jakie Rabinowitz,” son of a cantor on the Lower East Side. (The movie calls it “The New York Ghetto.”) We saw and heard him sing in clubs and on the street; indeed, his songs were the first sounds in the history of sound film. The screenplay, by Alfred Cohn (edited by Robert Carringer, University of Wisconsin, 1979), says Jakie/Jackie is thirteen, the Bar Mitzvah age when Jewish boys traditionally become men; but the kid we see looks and sounds under ten. Still, this kid (played by Bobby Gordon) can sing, and he can hold the screen. (Think of the clips of Michael Jackson’s Motown screen test.) He sings the late-Victorian love ballad “My Gal Sal,” and the Tin Pan Alley favorite “Waiting for the Robert E. Lee.” His father, the cantor, is tipped off, drags him from the café, proclaims his eternal disgrace (“your lowlife music from the streets”), whips him, and kicks him out. Jakie plunges into the melting pot of ...